Saturday, February 3, 2018

#6 Backstory of the Poem: Susan Sundwall's "The Ringmaster"

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***This is the sixth in a never-ending series called BACKSTORY OF THE POEM where the Chris Rice Cooper Blog (CRC) focuses on one specific poem and how the poet wrote that specific poem. 

Backstory of the Poem
“The Ring-master”
by Susan Sundwall

Can you go through the step-by-step process of writing this poem from the moment the idea was first conceived in your brain until final form?
On my blog, back in March of 2013 when I first posted this poem, I mention that it came to me in a lightning bolt. It was just about like that and the result of being called on to comfort a friend because of a tragic, needless death. A young man of my acquaintance had overdosed in his grandparents’ home. Her husband found Andrew (Above Right) dead in their upstairs bedroom. I was one of the first people they called. Andrew had just turned 21. It was awful. And infuriating.

Where were you when you started to actually write the poem?  And please describe the place in great detail.
I was at the graveside 
of the twenty-one-year old drug overdose victim. Images of people dancing like puppets to a cracking whip kept assailing my brain. It was nearly the end of winter and the ground was
slushy from melting snow. Mourners carefully navigated down the path to where the casket sat above the grave, waiting to be lowered into the ground. Everyone was deathly quiet as the last words over his young, violated body were pronounced. His friends were huddled together, stunned at what had happened and angry. It’s a moment frozen in time for me, surreal with a tinge of the malevolent. All of this followed me home where I sat down and began to compose the poem. (Above Left Arlington Cemetery)  and (Above Right Sundwall's window in her home) 

How many drafts of this poem did you write before going to the final? (And can you share a photograph of your rough drafts with pen markings on it?)
I don’t know how many drafts I did, but probably only a few since my emotions were so high and it seemed to flow more easily than other poems I'd written.

Were there any lines in any of your rough drafts of this poem that were not in the final version?  And can you share them with us?
I had to fiddle a bit with the ending so “to their graves” went in and out of the poem. In the end I decided to add the line two more times in decreasing font size to emphasize the descent into madness that drug abuse can bring. (Right Tomb at Arlington Cemetery) 

What do you want readers of this poem to take from this poem?
At the funeral words began flying in my head about the effect, fatally in this case, of drug abuse. A ringmaster presented him/herself as well as images of young people with monkeys on their backs. That’s an old term used for the things that won’t let us alone; drugs, alcohol, porn addiction, gluttony and others. About a week later the words began to flow out of me.
I wrote this poem about a week after the funeral and posted it on my blog attempting to expose the lie that drugs can often be. I felt guided by God's hand to write it. 
I am so grateful for all the people who commented on the poem when it was featured on my blog. Many of them knew Andrew or had been touched themselves by the profusion of drug abuse that seemed to be plaguing our country then as it does now. I also have two brothers whose fate was similar to the young man who inspired the poem. I dedicated it to the three of them.

Your biography?
I began writing for children about twenty years ago. My sister had asked for material for a family newspaper she was putting together. My latent desire to write began to bloom and I wrote a story called “The Legend of Mary’s Sparrow.”  I got such good feedback from it I began freelancing, blogging and writing poetry. I revised that first story and it was published years
later in an anthology by Knowonder. I hope some day it will become a stand alone picture book. I’m also the author of the Minnie Markwood mystery series and I've self published two short romance anthologies.

Anything you would like to add?
In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians (I Cor. 6:19) we find the oft quoted verse about our bodies being a temple. Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?” But the second half of the verse always had more meaning for me. “You are not your own;  you were bought with a price. Therefore honor God in your bodies.”
These lines came to me time and time again as I fought to get this poem out. I struggled because I knew it could have an effect and even though I always try to keep my blog postings light, I felt God directing me to use this platform in this instance for something more.
I wondered if my own fury at rampant substance abuse might mirror our Lord’s fury as he turned over the money changers tables in the temple. I was filled with righteous anger. God created us for so much more than we ever think. 


The Ringmaster

The Ringmaster’s name is Cocaine.
She will smile as she calls out your name,

“Inside of the ring, dear, you’ll see,
how your troubles and sorrows will flee.”

So you join in the Ringmaster’s dance;
life is rough - why not take the chance?

That the Ringmaster knows more than you
and the things that he tells you are true.

The trapeze that you seize flings you high
it’s so pleasant this rush to the sky.

You feel like you’re wearing a crown;
won’t ever, not ever, come down.

It’s so wonderful here at the top.
Please, oh please, it just can’t ever stop.

But you glance at the Ringmaster’s face,
and somehow you see there no grace.

She whispers, “I know you want more.”
And his lies hide the dead on the floor

of the Circus where fools become slaves
and dance all the way to their graves . . .

To their  graves

                           to their graves 

001  December 29, 2017
Margo Berdeshevksy’s “12-24”

002  January 08, 2018
Alexis Rhone Fancher’s “82 Miles From the Beach, We Order The Lobster At Clear Lake Café”

003 January 12, 2018
Barbara Crooker’s “Orange”

004 January 22, 2018
Sonia Saikaley’s “Modern Matsushima”

005 January 29, 2018
Ellen Foos’s “Side Yard”

006 February 03, 2018
Susan Sundwall’s “The Ringmaster”

007 February 09, 2018
Leslea Newman’s “That Night”

008 February 17, 2018
Alexis Rhone Fancher “June Fairchild Isn’t Dead”

009 February 24, 2018
Charles Clifford Brooks III “The Gift of the Year With Granny”

010 March 03, 2018
Scott Thomas Outlar’s “The Natural Reflection of Your Palms”

011 March 10, 2018 
Arya F. Jenkins “After Diane Beatty’s Photograph, “History Abandoned"

012 March 17, 2018
Angela Narciso Torres’s “What I Learned This Week

013 March 24, 2018
Jan Steckel’s “Holiday On ICE”

014 March 31, 2018
Ibrahim Honjo’s “Colors”

015 April 14, 2018
Marilyn Kallett’s “Ode to Disappointment”

016  April 27, 2018
Beth Copeland’s “Reliquary”

017  May 12, 2018
Marlon L Fick’s “The Swallows of Barcelona”

018  May 25, 2018

020 June 16, 2018
Charles Rammelkamp’s “At Last I Can Start Suffering”

021  July 05, 2018
Marla Shaw O’Neill’s “Wind Chimes”

022 July 13, 2018
Julia Gordon-Bramer’s “Studying Ariel”

023 July 20, 2018
Bill Yarrow’s “Jesus Zombie”

024  July 27, 2018
Telaina Eriksen’s “Brag 2016”

025  August 01, 2018
Seth Berg’s (It is only Yourself that Bends – so Wake up!”


  1. This poem is amazing! Although I have never experimented with any drug, I have several family members that struggle on a daily basis with addiction. I have had to learn not to be so angry at them. I've seen how drug addiction has torn families apart and it is sad.

    1. I'm so glad you found some meaning in my poem, Rachel. Thank you so much for your comment. God bless you and yours.